A war on ice: Ukraine, four years after Maidan



by Andrew Rasiulis

December 5, 2017

The Ukraine Crisis marks its four year anniversary this month. The crisis began on the Maidan Square in late November 2013 and escalated throughout December following the decision of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU and to instead move towards a closer economic partnership with Russia.

The impact of the Maidan revolt on Yanukovych’s pro-Russia policy led not only to the eventual installation of a more pro-Western (EU and NATO) government led by President Petro Poroshenko, but also to a counter-reaction amongst the more Russophile eastern oblasts in the Donbass. This counter-reaction was supported by Russia and included military assistance to the Ukrainian rebels in the Donbass, as well the direct seizure of Crimea by Russian military forces in February of 2014.

By February of 2015, the fighting in the breakaway Donbass region was stabilized by a cease-fire of sorts. Known as the Minsk 2 process and signed by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, the process established a line of demarcation and a rough roadmap to a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the Donbass. The matter of Crimea was not included and remains a matter for alternate diplomatic means and channels.

De facto, the Ukrainian Crisis has become a ‘frozen’ conflict. After four years, it is important on this anniversary to take stock of the political dividing line and to ponder whether a political resolution may be found on the horizon.

The Ukrainian government today is more adamant than ever in its pursuit of a policy of greater integration with the EU and NATO. A key tenet of this policy is to undertake reforms to satisfy NATO standards by 2020. There has been no political appetite in Kyiv to legislate constitution reform in Ukraine aimed at providing greater autonomy for the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, as agreed to in the Minsk 2 measures.

The Russian position is that without the necessary Ukrainian constitutional reform to facilitate the elections, restoration of Ukrainian control over the rebel-held territories remains in abeyance. Recent Russian and Ukrainian proposals for the deployment of peacekeeping forces in the conflict zone, while different in their approaches, remain technical and tactical elements of the larger political standoff between Ukraine and Russia.

Are there any prospects for a political resolution to the Ukraine Crisis, or are we to witness yet another long-standing frozen conflict along the periphery of what was once the Soviet Union?

Returning to the political origin of the conflict, the only plausible political solution must address the position of Ukraine between Russia and the West. Simply put, the Ukrainian government wants to join the EU and NATO. The Russian government, which has seen NATO expand up to what it considers to be traditional and historical Russian lands, will not accept the Ukrainian objective. Russia has used direct military force in Crimea and provided direct military assistance to the Ukrainian rebels in the Donbass to make its political point in Clausewitzean terms.

The West has responded to Russia by imposing economic sanctions and providing Ukraine with billions of dollars in aid to fight corruption and implement badly-needed reforms and governance across the spectrum of Ukrainian government and society.

The bottom line is that the Western response — including the sanctions — has not changed Russia’s political objective of keeping the EU and NATO Alliance expansion plans at bay in the context of Ukraine. Neither side demonstrates a willingness to make political adjustments to their political calculus and objectives. Frozen conflict appears to be the foreseeable status quo.

There may, however, be a political solution that — after much hand-wringing on both sides — would allow Ukraine to achieve a modified political objective which protects its fundamental interest of reform and expansion of economic trade options. For Russia, it also would provide the basis for enhanced economic opportunities while respecting its sense of national security interests.

The solution that deserves serious exploration as an alternative to frozen conflict is one that facilitates for Ukraine open trading relationships with both the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). A political compromise that opens doors for Ukraine to both East and West may offer all sides tangible and realizable benefits, including that of peaceful settlement to the Ukraine Crisis.

Image credit: AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka

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